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Ottawa issues wake-up call on railway fatigue

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/8/2019 (293 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — The Liberal government has accused Canada’s largest railways of ignoring safety risks caused by fatigue.

"I am very disappointed with your overall submission," reads a terse letter Transport Minister Marc Garneau sent to CN and CP Rail, which was obtained by the Free Press.

"Your submission fails to treat fatigue as an issue that impacts all people equally, regardless of the work they are performing, and ignores fatigue science."

Neither railway would give an interview Monday.

Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press files

Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press files

In December, Garneau asked Canada’s 24 railways to beef up their rules on rest periods for staff because the amount of oil being shipped by rail continues to increase.

Earlier this year, a Free Press series revealed workers driving trains through Manitoba are often exhausted due to over-capacity bunkhouses, sleep periods being undercut by long trips to hotels, and a fear of retaliation for calling in unfit to work.

Transport Canada provides general guidelines and railways craft their own safety rules. The department screens and approves those rules, and then inspects the companies for compliance.

The federal work/rest rules were last overhauled in 2012. Since then, railways have had an uptick in shipping orders by splitting shifts between days and nights, calling in workers on short notice, and having staff work both administrative and operational duties.

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau expressed disappointment in the railways' handling of fatigue issues.


Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau expressed disappointment in the railways' handling of fatigue issues.

Federal laws generally restrict railways from declining shipping orders, meaning they have to find and train enough staff to keep up with demand, including when weather delays trains and employees call in sick.

The Transportation Safety Board, the federal arm's-length watchdog, has flagged "sleep-related fatigue" as a contributing factor in 31 rail incidents dating back to 1990, and has had the issue on its watchlist since 2016.

Garneau started consultations in November 2017 on updating railway fatigue rules, and Ottawa has sponsored research on the issue. Last December, the minister asked rail companies to revise their rules and submit them by May, to fix "a patchwork of approaches" by companies and unions.

What Garneau received from CN and CP "clearly did not address the fatigue-related risks," he wrote in two July 8 letters.

Trains lined up in Winnipeg's Symington Yard.


Trains lined up in Winnipeg's Symington Yard.

The letters also clarify what Ottawa actually wants.

For example, instead of simply asking in May for "advance notice of work schedules… for employees to appropriately plan sleep," the department now demands notice come "a minus of 96 hours in advance of their shift start."

The letters also asks companies not prescribe different sleep arrangements based on whether someone is operating a train or monitoring it from an office.

The railways now have until Nov. 1 to submit new guidelines to the department, and Garneau has asked them to work with Teamsters Canada Rail Conference to set these new rules.

Last October, TSB chairwoman Kathy Fox chastised railways for "standing behind collective agreements to justify schedules that really are conducive to fatigue."

Teamsters confirmed Monday it has been discussing the issue with both CN and CP, but would not elaborate, citing non-disclosure agreements.

A train moves out of Symington Yard.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES A train moves out of Symington Yard.

The Railway Association of Canada declined an interview request Monday. It instead insisted "safety is a core value for the rail industry" and it is working with experts, Transport Canada and unions.

"Fatigue is a matter requiring empirical evidence and a scientific approach to identifying and delivering effective solutions," wrote spokesman Michael Gullo. "The industry welcomes comments from Transport Canada and will build on them to improve its proposition."

The two railways also refused to provide the draft rules they’d submitted to Ottawa.

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